The choice of album title here is totally appropriate. On In My Soul, his third solo album, Al Lukas digs deep, exploring matters of the heart and soul with both passion and precision. The Toronto-based singer/songwriter includes his talented musical accompanists in the equation, stressing that "the title is not just about the music being in my soul, but in the soul of everyone who came in on this album and performed."
The recording method employed was a highly spontaneous one. "We had no music written out. The players came in and heard the track for the first time, and I told them 'we'll sit on you until we get something out of you,'" laughingly recalls Al. He and his co-producer/engineer, Dave Angell, did exactly that, then crafted the results into one highly compelling record.
The core of In My Soul is provided by Lukas' fluent acoustic and electric guitar work and powerfully soulful voice. "I always write from the perspective of the vocal and acoustic guitar interplay, and I focus on the arrangements later," says Al. "Then it's about finding instruments to help set the mood. We wanted that 'dark alley at night' feeling on 'Wolf Like Me,' so the trumpet came in naturally. James Langridge plays with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra, so he knocked it off no problem. For 'In My Soul,' we wanted a dramatic undertone suggesting a struggle. I find strings do that really well, so Anthony Bacon came in on cello." Other top-notch players featured on the album are Rob Bevegnu and BB Grattan (drums), Carson Webber and Dave Angell (bass), Justin Sillman (piano), and Jamie Smith (backing vocals).
The songs on In My Soul cover wide stylistic terrain, making a rigid genre classification of this genuinely original artist close to impossible. The album's sound reflects Al's strong passion for and talent in an eclectic range of musical genres. " I don't even really think about the genre of a song when I write," he explains. "I just write, and with my pool of influences it comes out the way it does. I've been fortunate enough to work under different genres of music onstage, from playing in a bluegrass band when I was starting out, to classic rock and even heavy metal, pop, some jazzy stuff, and the blues, even some Motown. I just try to portray the mood of the song as best I can."In the first single and video, "Tell My Mind," that mood is jaunty and upbeat, making it a perfect catchy summer song for AC radio. "That's about having a little bit of faith, telling the person in the song not to worry because they have my heart and I'll just tell my mind what to do," says Al. "Wild Child" is a heavier blues-rock song, featuring electric guitar work Jeff Beck would be proud to claim, while "Find Me" "One True Friend" and the sweet "Sara Jane" are sparser ballads. They showcase the authentic and subtle power of Lukas' voice, as does the atmospheric and epic title track.
If forced at gunpoint, Al would describe his style as "just something Al Lukas would sing." And can this boy sing! Giving In My Soul a coherent focus is his rich and resonant voice. It seizes your attention from first listen, and never relinquishes its hold. Believe it or not, Al actually had to be coerced into becoming a singer. As a skilled acoustic guitarist, he was touring northern Ontario in his family's bluegrass-based band while in his mid teens, and was soon playing rock 'n roll in the bars of his hometown of Kapuskasing that'd let him in under-age.
"Singing was never something I wanted to do, but my mentor and singing teacher told me 'you can't just play guitar. You need to at least sing backups, and a singer may want to take a break so you can do a couple of songs.' I couldn't argue with the logic so I said 'O.K., I'll learn how to sing.' As I started to sing and project more I noticed I had this rather gruff voice."
Lukas quickly noticed its impact. "It's interesting to see how people react when I sing that first note onstage. I do see heads turn," he says. That's a natural response to a voice that is more a force of nature than an instrument. It has been compared to the likes of Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Howlin' Wolf, and Richie Havens, and Al is certainly comfortable with the Tom Waits reference. "As I grew up, he was always around and in the music I was hearing and playing, but I never knew I sang like him until later. I love his storytelling and dark sense of humour."
Al cites such guitar greats as Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, and Stevie Ray Vaughan as key inspirations, alongside the likes of Ry Cooder and bluegrass star Tony Rice. "I don't write bluegrass songs, but I sometimes still think that way on guitar," he says, as you can hear on the banjo-like picking that graces "Restless Flames." Lukas has distilled these diverse influences into a sound that is all his own, and his songwriting style is now equally original.
Honesty is the crucial and consistent ingredient of an Al Lukas song. "I don't invent stories," he explains. "I try to portray my thoughts and emotions. These songs are all personal interpretations of situations that have happened to me." In My Soul confirms the songwriting strides Lukas has made since his two previous albums, 2007's self-titled debut and 2009's Fall & Flight.
Fuelling many of the tunes on In My Soul was the remarkable experience of his Good Faith Tour. Beginning in the fall of 2009 and lasting seven months, this was far from your average cross-country musical tour. You see, Al didn't book any dates in advance, but instead relied on the barter system. "I'd heard a few things on CBC about people exchanging one service for another, like drywalling a cottage in exchange for a weekend getaway with their family," Al explains. "I then wondered what I could do with a tour. I didn't want to book one, but rather make it like a pilgrimage. I built a bed for my van and got some arctic sleeping gear 'cos I was going out in winter. I stopped in as many communities as I could and on the go I'd book my dates. I'd walk around town, go to the bars that had music and see what I could do. I had my rules. I couldn't rent a hotel room, it had to be bartered. If I was playing music, I couldn't ask for a price. All I could say was what I could offer, and by saying that it was then 'give me what you think its worth.' That could mean meals, or a place to stay, and some gave me money for gas.The generosity was quite striking."
The novel idea caught the imagination of fellow musicians and the media, and Al was able to tour from Windsor to Victoria and back, including a stop in Vancouver during the Olympics. A camera crew met him at different locations, and film footage of his extraordinary experiences is now being edited. This tour was a great leap of faith, but the gamble paid off handsomely, turning Al into a real troubadour and providing fertile material for new songs. "I feel the story is still unfolding as this album is a direct reflection of The Good Faith tour," he says.
The choice of Thunder Bay as a recording locale was a result of the tour, as Lukas met Dining Room Studio owner Dave Angell on his stop there. "I actually slept in the studio then," Al recalls. "When it came time to do the album, there was no question who I'd do it with."
The success of the Good Faith tour is partly attributable to Al Lukas' strength as a performer. He's just 25, but a decade of live performance has honed those chops to a sharp edge. Whether it's opening for Blue Rodeo in front of a large crowd in Kapuskasing, joining Jack deKeyzer onstage in Windsor, playing blues and roots festivals through Ontario, or participating in a jam session with some of Detroit's top blues and jazz players (including legendary trumpeter Marcus Belgrave), Al has never failed to impress.
Now he has come up with a superb record that announces the arrival of a formidable talent. It's time to give In My Soul a place in your heart.
released July 26, 2011
produced by: Al Lukas and Dave Angell
recorded and mixed by: Dave Angell and Chris Dorota at DiningRoom Studios
mastered by: Phil Demetro at Lacquer Channel Toronto